Learning To Stay (and go)

This past Christmas Holiday, I was able to share a moment with my granddaughter who was staying over. In the car, during one of many excursions, we enjoyed a song from the 1980’s that I had heard many times but was new to her. It has a great beat and simple lyrics which makes it easy to sing along. The song stayed in my head long after the Holidays had passed.

As Valentine’s Day approached, this song came back to haunt me. On this day devoted to romance and relationship, some of us will be faced with exploring the boundaries of love  with those we care for.  Mixed and missed messages from our partners, friends and family may cause us to doubt the our relationships and compel us to look for answers to our insecurities.

Experience in meditation can help us navigate the tumultuous waters of relating to loved ones, but it also teaches us that the first relationship we have to cultivate is the one with ourselves. Missing this last point seemed to characterize the lyrics from the song, Should I Stay or Should I Go, from the British rockers – The Clash. The song I enjoyed in such a fresh new way with my granddaughter.

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The Year of the Fire Bird

FireBird

Here is the moon of great bliss and skillful means. And here is the sun of wisdom and shunyata.”

Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche from The Sadhana of Mahamudra

 Calendar Makers

For millennia, Asian countries and cultures have celebrated the Lunar New Year. Depending upon the country, this new moon holiday will fall within two months after the Winter Solstice. In the Shambhala community (we follow the Tibetan tradition of Losar or “New Year”) the first day of the new Fire Bird year is Monday, February 27th. Shambhala Centers worldwide will celebrate this day. Everyone is welcome.

Greek civilization used a lunar calendar. Thanks to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, since 46 B.C.E. we’ve been using a calendar aligned with the earth’s orbit around the sun. This calendar was refined in the Middle Ages by Pope Gregory, which is why our current calendar is called Gregorian.

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How to Start Meditating

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How to start meditating? Different traditions answer that question differently. In Buddhist mindfulness, you start by focusing your attention on the breath. The Buddha himself gave instruction on this breath meditation in the Anapanasatti Sutra.

According to this Sutra, or discourse by the Buddha, there are steps along the path of mindfulness. The way to begin, however, is to be aware of the breath−or more precisely−the sensation of the body breathing.  Meditation Practice could start in many ways, but we are already in the habit of relating to our body (and happily, we are breathing). So the breath is a natural and familiar focus for gathering the mind.

In the sutra, even before the Buddha gives instructions on how to meditate, he gives advice on preparing to practice. In other words, even when we’re doing meditation at home, there is a way to begin.

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Meditation Posture

Meditation Posture

Meditation Posture

Beginning meditators should know that the meditation posture for your meditation practice allows you to relax and breath freely. The meditation seat choices for the beginner in meditation are actually simple. It all comes down to a question of height and flexibility.  What, for you, is the right distance between your bottom and the floor?  The Goal in your meditation posture:
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Giving and Knowing

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Generosity is our genes. The word comes from the root genus, meaning of good or noble birth. Noble, in turn, comes from the root gnosis—to know. Generosity speaks to the natural expression of an inherent goodness in human beings that both knows, and by its expression, is known.

This past summer, my wife and I hosted Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his family at our home in Vermont. The Sakyong (a Tibetan title meaning ‘Earth Protector’) is leading back-to-back retreats at Karmê Chöling, the meditation center in Barnet.

For the month-long visit, Jeanine and I move next door, into a small home about 100 feet from our house. We call this place the “cozy cottage” and it suits me just fine. For one thing, there is no cable TV. For another, the phone is relatively quiet, not really the case at the “big house.”

Many people tell us how generous we are to offer our home to the teacher. Perhaps they’re right, but to tell the truth, I don’t find anything special about it. It just feels like the right thing to do. Also, as I mentioned, the cottage has its own charm. Aside from the moving, cleaning and rearranging, the hardships are minimal.

If I was cynical, I might wonder about my own motivation. Does a large well-appointed home suggest importance or self-importance? Is the intent in offering to let go, or to reap higher rewards in the form of attention, praise and the regard of others? Perhaps we give when we fail to appreciate what we have, in the same way that someone might offer food they came by easily but don’t really have a taste for.

We might also offer because we cannot, out of guilt or for other reasons, relax with our own abundance. In this case, giving is unburdening, a kind of distraction from our own resourcefulness. Shifting responsibility to something or someone who can carry the weight.

With these questions unresolved, my wife and I rouse ourselves to face the reality of moving. There is always a moment in the move that hurts. (Doesn’t moving rank just under dying as a stressor?)  This is the moment when the idea of offering and letting go (which for me has always had a reassuringly spiritual appeal) meets the actuality of doing it.

Typically, a disagreement marks the moment. Madame (as she is known by many) asks me to help her “dress up” the garage. We will need the space, she says knowingly. The garage is big and very dusty. My heart sinks and I balk. “Why?” I ask exasperated, as if the rational for this little project will conflict with a logical underpinning for the whole effort. Struggling with the rightness of my wife’s suggestion, the distinction between offering and abandoning becomes painfully clear. It is the beginning of a journey I take every time we vacate the house for our teacher.

After all the moving, cleaning and preparing there is a date. On such and such a day the teacher will arrive. By that time we are out, really gone from the house. Anything we need from the big house, we have it. This deadline creates a bit of stress. You can’t really move your stuff when you feel like it, my wife explains patiently one morning—why don’t you do it today?

This time, because of a renovation earlier in the year, and because the Sakyong’s family was joining him, there are extra details. The process of leaving and setting up the house took longer than usual. The last 3 weeks before the arrival were particularly intense. Days began early with phone calls and emails, ending late with the preparation of a new punch list for the next day. During this time, we were supported by the efforts of a stellar group from the meditation center’s summer volunteer program.

For these three weeks, feeling the fatigue and the time crunch, I didn’t make it to my meditation cushion. Unaccustomed to a physical schedule of “doing,” without time for contemplation, I found myself losing balance, subject to mood swings and strong emotions. At some point it dawned on me that the day would go better if, for a few moments each day, I just sat still to see how I was feeling.

Early in the morning, the sun shines in the east windows of the cozy cottage. Sitting quietly on the couch, sipping tea, I enjoy the moment before emails and phone calls. Inspiration as well as doubt and even depression rise and fall in my mind. I acknowledge whatever the thoughts are—neither congratulating nor condemning them. By giving these thoughts and emotions a moment of appreciation, their colorful roots are exposed. It is a naked moment with myself.

Just by relaxing for this few minutes, taking the time to acknowledge my internal landscape, the long days went better. There was more flow, appreciation, and wonder. In the same way that I wasn’t able to hold on to my house, I discovered, the thoughts and emotions that colored this effort also couldn’t be grasped. In fact, in giving it away (or at least lending it), the house seemed to expand in all directions (certainly in the cleaning this is true!) As we closed in on moving out, the house took on a life and dignity of its own.

Like any activity, giving creates its own momentum. When we give, the world shifts and how we see the world changes. Staring at the contents of my sock drawer that will go to the basement, the question “is it for me or against me?” doesn’t really apply. For or against? Perhaps it is both—or neither. Who knows? More to the point—who cares?!

At the bottom of a sock drawer, humor dawns and the mind grows lighter. I begin to wonder, is my persistent and solemn search for satisfaction and security purely an invention? An imagined drama unfolding in a world full of things that, in truth, can neither be grasped nor given away. And, if what I want is imagined, where does that leave me?

These questions and insights encourage both appreciation and letting go. They are generous. Maybe, as our teachers have been telling us for centuries, the ground of giving—generosity—isn’t something we do, but something we know—our birthright as nobly born human beings.

 

 

Appreciation Agenda

Appreciation Agenda“Oh, I know, Uncle Seward, there is one other thing…”

We were finishing a late breakfast in the Gallery, the small, upholstered room at the Hotel Carlyle, on Manhattan’s upper east side. We were the only ones there. A successful artist and heir of a wealthy family, Uncle Seward calls the hotel home when he’s in the city, which he was this weekend. Ordering his eggs, he also ordered a rye whiskey on the rocks.

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A Time for Healing (Meditation)

Things have been weighing on my mind.

I sit on a few nonprofit boards. The continuing decline in stock markets has left these institutions possibly imperiled.  At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I had a mole removed.  An hour drive through blowing snow to a visit with the dermatologist scheduled two months earlier.  During the drive, a cell phone call from a patron to invite me to assume temporary Board Chair responsibilities for a struggling arts organization.  More time will be needed.  Outcomes uncertain. The phone call makes me remember long-scheduled commitments to teach meditation looming ahead on my schedule.  I had yet to prepare for these.

In the examination room, stripped down to my underwear and socks.  The doctor asked me if I thought meditation could be “healing.”

Here it is, my big chance to influence Western Medicine.  “Yes,”  I answered, intoning with talk of body, mind, and breath.  Key, I added, was intellectual understanding or “view” for successful meditation practice.  All of this while the doctor scanned my exposed skin with what looked like a fancy magnifying glass. Somewhere in the middle of my pitch, I lost him.  Running behind schedule with his patients.  Limited time for chitchat, I guess.

He stopped his scanning at a mole on my back.

“Whoa.  OK, this one’s gotta go.”

“Oh, really.  When should we do this?”  I asked, imagining a time down the road when the thought of this procedure would fit in comfortably with all of the worries pressing in on my schedule.

“If it’s OK with you – Now.”

I sputtered something about my immediate plans for the day and then came up with the real question – “Will it hurt?”

“Just a pinch.”

Some more reassurances and a needle prick later there was casual talk about the doctor’s upcoming trip to San Francisco, future emails and phone calls with “results”.  Eavesdropping, I thought he was speaking to the nurse until it dawned on me that he was talking to me — referring to the erstwhile piece of me that needed to be tested for cancer.  Six days later and a few fitful nights and anxious dreams, the still sore, quarter-sized crater in my back is looking like it just might heal and I haven’t heard anything from the good doctor.

Abandoned Paper Bag
Abandoned Paper Bag

“You are so lazy!” my wife, Jeanine exclaims in exasperation on Saturday – referring to a paper shopping bag emptied of its contents but left to languish for an hour on the floor of the kitchen. I couldn’t disagree. Heightened anxiety distracts me. If left to fester, immobilization is the result.  OK, so call this existential crisis “laziness”.  I didn’t have the energy to split hairs.  In any event, to be sure, more than my usual share of household ineffectiveness had characterized the past week.

During this week my customary morning meditation practice has also faltered.  Sure, meditation practice is healing.  But probably not if you don’t do it.  Last night having exhausted all distractions, I finally talked myself onto the Zafu and Zabuton in our meditation room.  While sitting and paying attention to my breath, I faced my anxiety.  A jumble of thoughts and emotions pressed on my mind and future.  Behind all of them lingered a heightened sense of mortality. My practice was pinching.

Slowly, coming back to mindfulness of my breath, I stopped fighting.  The anxiety relaxed into a sense of sadness and loneliness. Was my suffering brave, a profound and timely confrontation with impermanence?  Or was it the worry-prone machinations of a comfort-obsessed coward?  No way to know.  Sitting on my meditation cushion, late on Saturday night, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The sad lonely feeling was a relief.  My mind was settling.  A week of dithering about, trying to postpone this meeting with myself, was over.

Saturday night I slept well. Sunday morning, for the first time all week, my physician-mind woke me up with a prescription for “healing” meditation.

“Oh really,” my anxious-mind replied. “When would you like to do this?”

“If it’s OK with you”, my physician-mind replied, “Now.”

Editor’s Note: In diagnosing suffering, its cause and remedy, the person known as the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician.”  For inspired and thoughtful texts on healing meditation see Tulku Thondup’s Healing Power of Mind and Boundless Healing.  For the tradition’s take on what the “physician-mind”  might look like, see the Medicine or Healing Buddha.

Impermanence, or College Students Are Getting Younger

I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University.  This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college.    However, photos recently posted to Facebook  show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now.   Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them.  I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do.  (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)

Before
Before
After
After

There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it.  Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me.  And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind.  But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living.  People who were younger than me.  A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41.   Can you see where I’m going with this?

Of course,  whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence,  thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon.  But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long.  People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming,  experiences.  I can’t take them with me either.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever.   Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary,  is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously.  If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.

So the question  (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy?  Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not.  But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment.  Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”

Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu